Exploring Planetary Boundaries

A need for sustainable solutions to environmental issues has become increasingly desperate as we see the effect of humans on Earth’s fragile ecosystems. Life on Earth is supported by the biosphere - a thin layer encapsulating the planet. Aside from radiation, light and heat energy, the biosphere is a closed system. Until the Earth’s atmosphere is totally destroyed, this closed system self-regulates by maintaining a fine balance using the resources that have existed on Earth for billions of years - water, gases, biomass… Even small changes can drastically change the course of history, but human impact is not small. Some of the changes we have seen in the last few decades have been so drastic that scientists are suggesting we have entered into a new ‘Anthropocene’ epoch, defined by the impact of humans on geological and biological processes on Earth.

Carbon dioxide and methane in the Earth’s atmosphere is at a record high because of the burning of fossil fuels, mass farming of animals for human consumption, transportation and human waste. Water and soils are contaminated with toxic industrial by-products, manmade materials and chemicals. Every year humans produce about 300 million metric tonnes of plastic, 5-12 tonnes of which enters waterways to be consumed by millions of animals, including us. We’ve triggered an extinction crisis by systematically claiming land, destroying the habitats of other animals, and exploiting animal populations for food. With the exponentially growing human population, it seems things will only get worse.

Comparisons of simulated and reconstructed Northern Hemisphere temperature changes. Graphic from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change Fifth Assessment Report

The effects of human impact are multiplied by the results. For example, global warming caused by industrial pollution results in melting sea-ice which leads to a darker ocean surfaces that absorbs more radiation, increasing the global warming effect. Small changes can very quickly lead to catastrophic, potentially irreversible outcomes for the Earth’s ecosystems.

These are ecosystems that you rely on for food, water, materials for shelter, a safe and healthy life for yourself, your family and community. We are already experiencing more extreme weather conditions that affect our agriculture, our health, the security of our homes. We will all feel the effects, but the poorest people will feel them even more despite having the least environmental impact. Climate change is driving more people into poverty, and deepening the inequalities they will experience. It doesn’t have to be this way.

At this point in history, humans have replaced many natural regulatory processes for ecosystems on Earth. We design systems that control the movement of biomass and water, and gases in the Earth’s atmosphere so that we may utilise the resources and natural processes within those ecosystems. Some of the negative consequences of the exploitation of these socio-ecological systems are due to ignorance of the potential harms our activity would cause in such a short period of time, and part of the problem is simply ignoring the negative consequences in favour of short term gains.

A way forward would therefore have to include a cultural shift that gave a value to finite natural resources other than providing us with some immediate benefit such as financial gain. Capitalist societies exist primarily through exploitation of labour and resources that include the natural environment, so a great deal could be learnt from cultures that do have more balanced socio-ecological systems. Our beliefs and lifestyles are often deeply engrained and a cultural shift does not happen overnight. It can even seem impossible when some very powerful people who have a stake in environmentally destructive industries also have a huge impact on public opinion.

The Stockholm Resilience Centre (SRC) works directly with international institutions, using scientific research presented in simplified way to highlight the major environmental problems we need to address, and offer advice on how to take action towards global sustainability, particularly in business and governmental policy. The SRC identified nine planetary boundaries within which humanity can thrive and develop, without risking further irreversible environmental change. The influence and outcomes of the SRC and similar organisations provides hope that collaboration with governmental and international development agencies could make a difference.

Credit: J. Lokrantz/Azote based on Steffen et al. 2015

However, the work to remain within the planetary boundaries will have to take place on many levels of our societies. The SRC suggests implementing ‘resilience thinking’ into the development of socio-ecological systems. This means having an approach in policy, problem-solving, and management of systems that builds a capacity to deal with unexpected change in the biosphere and the ways that we interact with it. This approach relies on diversity, inclusion, learning and adaptation. Everyone has a part to play in building and sustaining the resilience of their socio-ecological systems. We don’t wait until we are totally screwed - we look to understand what is happening around us and adapt accordingly.

At first it seems like an obvious suggestion but perhaps we do need reminding that humans are a part of nature, rather than separate from it. The biosphere, the ecosystem, the environment you live in and rely on for survival does include you. Our actions do have an impact, individually and collectively. All of Earth’s systems can benefit from the developments that comes with that knowledge.


Anthropocene - a proposed geological age defined by human influence on the Earth’s natural systems

Biomass - The total amount of plant and animal material

Biosphere - The layer of the Earth where life exists

Ecosystem - An interconnected community of living organisms within their physical environment

Planetary boundaries - environmental limits within which humanity can safely operate, proposed by environmental scientists at Stockholm Resilience Centre.

Resilience - the ability of an ecosystem to quickly respond and recover from sudden changes

Socio-ecological system - a system of natural and social factors that relies on adaptive interactions to maintain resilience


The Anthropocene Epoch - Damian Carrington https://www.theguardian.com/environment/2016/aug/29/declare-anthropocene-epoch-experts-urge-geological-congress-human-impact-earth

CO₂ and Greenhouse Gas Emissions - Hannah Ritchie & Max Roser https://ourworldindata.org/co2-and-other-greenhouse-gas-emissions

Synthetic Polymer Contamination in Global Drinking Water - Mary Kosuth et al https://orbmedia.org/stories/Invisibles_final_report/multimedia

Climate Model Simulations of the Last 1,000 Years - National Centers for Environmental Information https://www.ncdc.noaa.gov/global-warming/last-1000-years AR5 Synthesis Report - The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change https://www.ipcc.ch/report/ar5/syr/

Entering the sixth mass extinction - Gerardo Ceballos https://advances.sciencemag.org/content/1/5/e1400253

Great Acceleration - Anthropocene http://www.anthropocene.info/great-acceleration.php

Population - United Nations https://www.un.org/en/sections/issues-depth/population/

Climate Change and Poverty - Action Aid https://www.actionaid.org.uk/about-us/what-we-do/emergencies-disasters-humanitarian-response/climate-change/climate-change-and-poverty#footnote2_bmda05z

Nine ‘tipping points’ that could be triggered by climate change - Robert McSweeney


Tipping elements in the Earth's climate system - Timothy M. Lenton et al https://www.pnas.org/content/105/6/1786

5 Shades of Climate Denial - Marianne Lavelle https://insideclimatenews.org/news/09062017/five-shades-climate-denial-donald-trump-scott-pruitt-rex-tillerson-jobs-uncertainty-white-house

Planetary Boundaries Research - Stockholm Resilience Centre https://www.stockholmresilience.org/research/planetary-boundaries.html

Planetary boundaries: Guiding human development on a changing planet - Will Steffen et al https://science.sciencemag.org/content/347/6223/1259855

Applying Resilience Thinking - Stockholm Resilience Centre https://whatisresilience.org/wp-content/uploads/2016/04/Applying_resilience_thinking.pdf

Cover image credit: Wes Hicks instagram.com/sickhews




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